Lack of productivity growth is because fintech is being used to support existing products, processes, regulation and institutional structures
There’s a story about banking and technology and change that I sometimes tell at seminars or to warm up workshops.
The story is about a guy who was retiring from a bank after spending almost his entire working life there (I heard the story a couple of times from a couple of different people but as far as I know its earliest written form is in Martin Mayer’s excellent book “The Bankers“).
The guy in question had risen to a fairly senior position, so he got a fancy retirement party as I believe is the custom in such institutions. When he stepped up on stage to accept his retirement gift, the chairman of the bank conducted a short interview with him to review his lifetime of service.
He asked the retiree “you’ve been here for such a long time and you’ve seen so many changes, so much new technology in your time here, tell us which new technology made the biggest difference to your job?”
The guy thought for a few seconds and then said “air conditioning”.
It’s a funny story, but it’s an important story because it includes a profound truth. Robert Gordon’s magisterial investigation of productivity in the US economy “The Rise and Fall of American Growth“, shows very clearly that the introduction of air conditioning did indeed lead to a measurable jump in productivity, clearly visible in the productivity statistics.
Now some other technologies did, of course, lead to improvements in the productivity of banks and the wider financial services sector. Computers, for example. But it took a while for them to transform anything (we all remember Robert Solow’s 1987 “productivity paradox” that computers were everywhere except for the productivity statistics) and the figures seem to show that those improvements slowed to a standstill a couple of decades ago.
In the last decade, the smartphone revolution does not seem to have been accompanied by any increase in productivity at all and it’s not just because half the workforce are playing Candy Crush and the other half are messing around on Instagram instead of doing any useful work.
The lack of productivity growth is, as Gordon notes and anyone working in the field knows, because new technologies are being used to support existing products, processes, regulation and institutional structures rather than to create new and better ways of delivering financial services functionality into the economy.
While there are individual fintechs that have been incredibly successful (look at Paypal and Stripe), fintech has yet to fulfil its promise of making the financial sector radically more efficient, more innovative and more useful to more people.
In short, we haven’t yet had a fintech revolution or anything like one.
The “challenger banks” are just more banks.
Where Is Innovation?
If you think I’m being harsh, take a look at this survey of almost 800 companies that ranked financial services as one of the least innovative sectors of the economy! We all expect the pharmaceutical companies, to pick an obvious example, to be more innovative than banks. And according to that survey, they are. But even the textile industry is ranked more innovative than banking, where business models and the cost of intermediation (which I would see as being a key measure of productivity) haven’t changed for generations.
I can illustrate this point quite simply. While I was writing this piece, I happened to be out shopping and I went to get a coffee. I wanted a latte, my wife wanted a flat white. While I was walking toward the coffee shop, I used their app to order the drink. The internet, the mobile phone and the app had completely reinvented the retail experience whereas the payment experience was authentication chromewash on top of a three-digit band-aid on top of a card-not-present hack on top of a 16-digit identifier on a card product that was launched in a time before the IBM 360 was even thought of.
Thomas Phillipon of the Stern School at NYU carried out a very detailed analysis of the US financial sector back in 2014 and found that the unit cost of financial intermediation was around 1.87% on average (which is a lot of money). This adds up to a significant chunk of GDP. Indeed, calculations seem to indicate that the finance sector consumes about 2% excess GDP. What’s more, these costs do not seem to have decreased significantly in recent years, despite advances in information technology and despite changes in the organization of the finance industry. Earlier World Bank work looking at the impact of bank regulations, market structure, and national institutions on bank net interest margins and overhead costs using data from 1,400 banks across 72 countries tells us why: tighter regulations on bank entry and bank activities increase the cost of intermediation.
Regtech Does Matter
The dynamic here is, I hypothesise, that Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law are overcome by the actual law and the costs of KYC, AML, CTF, PEP, Basle II, MiFID, Durbin and so and forth climb far faster than costs of transistors fall. This observation in fact shows us the way forward. As technology has driven down the costs of computing and communications, the cost of shifting bits around has collapsed. But financial services are – as they should be – heavily regulated and the costs of that regulation have rocketed. The net result is that fintech has not brought about a revolution.
If there is going to be such a revolution, if new technology is allowed to create new business models and new market structures, and if those new structures are to reduce the costs of intermediation, then we need the regulators to take the initiative on innovation. A good place to start (in the US) would be to allow a national charter for the equivalent of the EU’s Payment Institutions, to give non-banks access to financial networks, but that’s only one suggestion. We also need action on digital identities and verifiable credentials, access to instant payment networks (and central bank money) and so on.
The truth is that it is regtech, not fintech, that will deliver the step-change in financial services that we need for the new economy.
Read more from David Birch at dgwbirch.com